Silence is an art. It takes a good bit of restraint to remain silent when everything within you is screaming to say something—anything—that will relieve the frustration and angst that has suddenly been instigated by the words/deeds of another.
The trick in recognizing when silence is best comes with understanding the motivation of the one with whom you are speaking and developing the ability to see beyond the immediate emotionality of the moment.
If the conversation seems prompted by frustration or anger—and you are certain that you have done nothing to cause the discomfort—you can be sure that this episode is one of misdirected anger. In which case, a decision to engage does nothing more than negatively fuel the moment. There is nothing gained from fighting a losing battle—walk away—don’t try for the last word.
In cases where you are less certain of the other’s motives, you will have to trust your instincts. How do you feel? Do you feel attacked? Or do you get the feeling that there is more to the discussion than the surface level rhetoric it has presented itself to be?
If you feel that the conversation is more than what it seems, silence is best because it’s obvious that you are dealing with a situation where it’s difficult for the person to get to the point without meandering around for a bit—although frustrating—it’s best to let them get there at their own pace.
Don’t scurry the chat to its climax because you’ve mistakenly pegged it as another round of “what’s wrong with you, what’s right with me”.
On the other hand, don’t become the target of a vitriolic attack either. It’s okay to defend yourself by saying something productive and pointed—if the situation calls for such honesty. In the end it’s simply about being patient with the process and understanding that the outcome should be productive—not painful—if either of you is going to progress.